Women power in the heartland

Posted by Ranjini Sen, District Dewas, Madhya Pradesh

Sushila Bai from Mansinghpura village of Bagli, Madhya Pradesh works as an agricultural labourer in nearby farms. Last year, her husband had a motorcycle accident after which it became impossible for him to go back to work. Since then, Sushila Bai has become the sole breadwinner for her family of five. In our conversation with her, she said, “The lockdown led to more hardships, as there was no source of income. For a family like ours, that lives on daily wages, we were surviving on help from neighbours and using whatever little savings we had. We had one meal a day and would go to bed early in the evening to avoid feeling hungry.”

Nanuram from Bhikupura village of Bagli, Madhya Pradesh worked at a poultry farm until he lost his job due to the countrywide lockdown after the outbreak of COVID-19. In remote tribal villages of Madhya Pradesh, several rumours were associated with COVID-19, that it can spread through poultry rapidly. As a result, thousands of poultry farmers had to throw away their stocks of birds or sell them at very low prices, thereby incurring immense losses. In fact, the poultry sector of the entire region was affected by such rumours and was forced to shut down. Sajna Bai, Nanuram’s wife worked as an agricultural labourer.

Image Credit: The Hindu

After the first lockdown was announced, both lost their livelihood and slipped into a food crisis as well. Sajna Bai said, “We did not have enough ration to sustain ourselves and our one-year-old child after the lockdown. My mother-in-law was very kind to provide us with some wheat in the first two weeks but we were struggling to sustain ourselves beyond that.” The Public Distribution System shops in their village did not have enough stocks as all supply lines were disrupted because of the lockdown. Groceries available in the local stores saw a steep surge in prices, and with all economic activity paralysed, people had no cash in hand to buy day to day provisions. 

The story of the relief work done by Samaj Pragati Sahayog (SPS), during the COVID-19 lockdowns, is a testament to the power and mighty heart of women’s institutions. SPS is an organization working in Dewas and Khargone districts of Madhya Pradesh for the past three decades, on natural resource management, sustainable livelihoods, and on building strong institutions of women – SHG Federations and Producer Companies. A three-phase relief was planned for the families in distress with the help of funds from RCRC network, and many other donors. 

In first phase began in April, where food packages consisting of essential items like oil, pulses, wheat flour, sugar, spices, soap and detergent, were supplied to over 13,044 families from urban and peri-urban locations who were solely dependent on daily wages. This careful selection and ability to reach the neediest families was only possible because of the robust and solid network of women’s SHGs and Federations who were able to stand up for the entire community.  

In the middle of the pandemic, with all supply chains disrupted we were still able to collect over a 100 tonnes of wheat from our women farmers, mill it and provide 120 tonnes of flour for the relief package. We could not have hoped to procure these quantities from the open market. It was only possible because the wheat was procured from Ram Rahim Pragati Producer Company Limited (RRPPCL), an all women Farmer Producer Company of 4000 small and marginal women farmers practising Non-Pesticidal Management (NPM) agriculture. If RRPPCL had not stepped in to procure this wheat, all member farmers would have no choice but to sell their harvest to exploitative traders at distress prices, as they were  desperate to sell their Rabi season harvest of wheat because it would have gone bad due to lack of proper storage facilities during the monsoon.

Therefore, a virtuous cycle was created. Rations reached those in distress, farmers did not have to suffer loss and the women who received the relief packages were very satisfied with the quality of the flour with which they prepared their chapatis

For a family like Sushila Bai’s or Sajna Bai’s, this relief package was instrumental in tiding over an immediate food crisis and helped them sustain for about three weeks until agricultural operations were permitted by the government and farms resumed hiring labourers once again. SPS collected Rs. 1.25 crores to provide relief in the first phase.  

In the second phase of the relief drive, out of a total of Rs. 1.8 crores collected, an amount of Rs. 1 crore was donated by the women members and leaders of the SHG federations nurtured by SPS. This amount was provided as cash transfers for their fellow members in distant areas. This phenomenal support by our women’s federations for other women in need, poorer than them, came at a time when they were severe facing hardships themselves. The relief fund from the federations came from surpluses they had generated and saved up over the previous year.

In the third phase of relief, seeds and agricultural inputs worth 44 lakhs to 2784 NPM farmers for the Kharif season across the Dewas and Khargone districts were provided.

The relief work continues even today, as inputs for livestock, or seeds for the rabi season. With thirty years of grounding work in ensuring water and livelihood security, sustainable agriculture, self-help group and bank linkage, and strengthening community institutions of the poor, Adivasi, Dalit, marginalized and displaced women, SPS was able to reach out to around 48,000 households in this time of grave crisis which set out to cripple lives in more ways than one. Through continuous development of strategies to address the many hardships and challenges that were thrown at us during this very crucial time, SPS learned, coped, implemented and was devoted to working with the poor, marginalized and vulnerable people living in the remote Adivasi belt of Central India.

Cover Image: SPS website
Story Images: Author, SPS website and Media sites

Standard Disclaimer : The story contributors are responsible for all views and facts provided in their posts. Lockdown Voices and its editorial team is not accountable for the accuracy of the information posted.

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